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Book Review
‘Artist, Undone’ by V. Sanjay Kumar
Protagonist of an arty fictional account, frizzled and frustrated Harsh Sinha decides to take a year-long break from his frenzied advertising career in Mumbai, finally abdicating his role of a weekend husband and father. While planning his sabbatical after almost eight years, he comes across a work by Natraj Sharma, ‘Fat, Fucked and Forty’ that grips him. Hooked by it, he instinctively grabs it for Rs 2.7 million. Desperate to be with his family, and also flaunt his new proud possession to his wife living with their daughter, he rushes to Chennai. But fate has something else in store for him…

His wife simply refuses to accommodate him sans any explanation. The hapless husband is now jobless and homeless, anchorless and rudderless in life. To make a living, he decides to sell the painting as a temporary solution. And that’s when things start taking strange turns, as readers discover them one by one, as they become a part of Harsh Sinha’s tryst with the world of art.

A gripping novel, ‘Artist, Undone’ by V.Sanjay Kumar (Publishers: Hachette India; Pages: 240; Price: Rs 495), builds tantalizing human drama, using contemporary Indian art as an apt backdrop, subtly dealing with its nuances instead of indulging in a liner ‘fact finding’. Having closely been associated with top artists and galleries, the author weaves frailties of human nature and emotions into perplexing ways of the art world. The book released a couple of months ago during an exhibition of modern & contemporary Indian art at Sakshi Art Gallery Chennai contains a fine blend of fact and fiction that grips readers with a dramatic chain of events, especially after Harsh Sinha visits a number of galleries to find a buyer for his painting.

Throwing light on the ensuing drama, an introduction narrates: “Harsh Sinha – ‘Fat, F**ked and Forty’ – moved by a painting bearing this name and a compelling likeness to him, spends a large chunk of his life’s savings on it. He wants to return to his wife and daughter, to spend quality time with them. Sadly, she no longer wants him - more interested in Newton Kumaraswamy, the artist next door, whose every work is an ode to Francis Newton Souza. With no job to turn to, and no family to lean on, Harsh returns to Mumbai to let himself freefall further into the seductive world of contemporary Indian art and artists!”

Sharp, rough, and written with biting candor, the book comes across as a beguiling narrative of one man’s understanding of the creation, the commerce and the critiquing of contemporary art. It is also a montage of lives changed – mauled, redefined and occasionally redeemed – by it. In a series of subplots we come across some American students trying to gather more information about Newton Kumaraswamy impressed by his debut solo in New York, a fellow Coromandal Artists’ Village painter Gopi, and a mobile handsets dealer tracking Newton’s activities, among other characters. There is a mélange of human emotions – love and passion, incest and false morality. The narrative smartly swivels between the cities of Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi and New York, invading many other mental spaces, switching from one time warp to another – encompassing different people and places.

‘Artist, Undone’ makes succinct observations on our perceptions of art. For example, Harsh Sinha quips at one point: ‘People buy art for aesthetics, for vanity, for pomp, for splendor, for peer-level masturbation, for a lark, to try to belong, to make money, because they can’t say no, because they can’t stop, because for a public rush of blood, for the rush that possession gives, for nostalgia, for the sheer joy of buying…’ Maintaining the fine line between non-fiction and fiction has been a challenging, albeit fascinating experience for V. Sanjay Kumar (the Director of Sakshi Gallery) whom Geetha Mehra describes as a valued colleague, while applauding his ability to skillfully weave events around the domain of art through recognizable and some purely fictional characters.

It’s difficult to write about art sans any visuals about art, hence the concept of infusing images in account, explains the author, who reveals in an interview: “I want people to come into the art world and just be what they are, and to have their freedom, to be fearless in terms of how they respond, to find themselves, so to speak, by looking at the art world. That’s the crux of the book, how people find themselves by exploring the art world.” His aim has been to build characters navigating that real space so that the reader can feel, ‘Well! This could be me.’

The idea is not to get judgmental about them, but to let people make up their own perspective and experience. According to JohnyML, an interesting aspect of the novel is the inbuilt discussion on issues regarding plagiarism, adoption, influence, inspiration, co-optation and such phrases involved in the discourse of contemporary Indian art, Revealing how the book deals with the idea of originality, the renowned art critic points out: “Without entering into the theoretical blabbering, the author raises this issue of originality through his protagonists. So is his scathing criticism on the state of art critical writings. In his characteristic narrative style, he quotes critics like Ranjit Hoskote and Geeta Kapur and debates whether lucid writing is still a dream in the Indian art criticism.”

As the pieces shift and fit in the kaleidoscopic jigsaw of the confused and cunning characters, the novelist elucidates how art is closely connected with the new aspiring class of modern Indian society, viscerally tied to real life vicissitudes.